Forest vegetation change and its impacts on soil water following 47 Years of managed wildfire

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Managed wildfire is an increasingly relevant management option to restore variability in vegetation structure within fire-suppressed montane forests in western North America. Managed wildfire often reduces tree cover and density, potentially leading to increases in soil moisture availability, water storage in soils and groundwater, and streamflow. However, the potential hydrologic impacts of managed wildfire in montane watersheds remain uncertain and are likely context dependent. Here, we characterize the response of vegetation and soil moisture to 47 years (1971–2018) of managed wildfire in Sugarloaf Creek Basin (SCB) in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA, using repeat plot measurements, remote sensing of vegetation, and a combination of continuous in situ and episodic spatially distributed soil moisture measurements. We find that, by comparison to a nearby watershed with higher vegetation productivity and greater fire frequency, the managed wildfire regime at SCB caused relatively little change in dominant vegetation over the 47 year period and relatively little response of soil moisture. Fire occurrence was limited to drier mixed-conifer sites; fire-caused overstory tree mortality patches were generally less than 10 ha, and fires had little effect on removing mid- and lower strata trees. Few dense meadow areas were created by fire, with most forest conversion leading to sparse meadow and shrub areas, which had similar soil moisture profiles to nearby mixed-conifer vegetation. Future fires in SCB could be managed to encourage greater tree mortality adjacent to wetlands to increase soil moisture, although the potential hydrologic benefits of the program in drier basins such as this one may be limited.

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